How naturally good are you at what you do?

Some people assume that all of the important non-technical skills evidenced by successful accountants and partners can be developed merely by working alongside experienced colleagues or learning ‘on the job’ , through experience.

Another common view is that some people are naturally ‘good’ at things as though their experiences, background and training were irrelevant. Thus no more formal training is necessary. Older partners and long established sole practitioners didn’t have such training. Anyone who needs training or support in ‘soft’ skills is not worthy of progression – of running a successful practice or becoming a full equity partner.  Is this true actually?

Many people believe that these skills develop over time and that no support or assistance is required.They repeat the old mantra ‘Practice makes perfect’. Yet this is very misleading. ‘Practice’ alone doesn’t make ‘perfect’.‘Practice’ makes ‘permanent’. And this is not always a good thing.

If you develop bad driving habits and practice driving more and more, you won’t automatically become a better driver. You will merely reinforce your bad driving habits. Equally we have probably all experienced at least one senior professional who is an unpleasant selfish bully. They practiced their approach and ‘perfected’ it. But no one would suggest that such an approach is ideal. And I have certainly met many sole practitioner accountants who haven’t achieved the success they deserve. Typically this seems to be because they have adopted the ‘practice makes perfect’ philosophy. 

If you’re not naturally brilliant at something you need to be able to do well, do you give up or take more lessons?

Are you as successful as you deserve to be? Could anything be better in your practice? Will things change by themselves or do YOU need to do something different to bring about that change? And can you do it all by yourself? If so, why haven’t you done it already? Not enough time? Or is it not a sufficient priority? Or maybe you would benefit from some outside stimulus to support your endeavours. 

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Have you ever written to a client and said ‘Thank you’?

Read this on a business networking forum and thought I should share it here:

This morning I received a letter from my accountants telling me that I had been voted by their staff as one of their clients that it has been most enjoyable working with over the past year; and then thanking me for my part in making their company a ‘great place to work’.

Wow. I felt great this morning! How often does that happen?

I feel this was genuinely meant as well. But the cynic in me did think – that’s very clever marketing for customer retention purposes… but if it is, it worked – so I am still happy and will still pay their fees this year!

For all you other accountants and service providers out there – you may want to try this…

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7 steps to resolving client complaints

Towards the end  of my talk last night on How to Handle Difficult Clients, I summarised a seven step process that I have not previously shared on this blog:

1 Listen to the client They won’t listen to you until you have listened to them.

When their mouths are open, their ears are closed.

2 Offer EMPATHY first.

Do not start with

“It wasn’t my fault”

Make clear that you appreciate their position.

Eg: “I can understand why you must be upset by that.”

Repeat if necessary.

[You are empathising, not sympathising and not agreeing that you, or anyone else, has done something wrong]

3 Ask questions

Upset people tend to start in the middle

Ask questions so that you can get the whole story and are able to understand their problem.
4 Pause Make clear that you’re not offering some ‘pat’ prepared response.  What follows needs to evidence that you have been listening to what they’ve said.
5 Explain what YOU can do for them Outline what YOU can do.

If it’s not what they want, explain your reasons without BLAMING them.

Take responsibility for the follow up action

6 Keep your promise Do whatever you said you would do and ensure that anyone else involves does so too  (as far as you can anyway).

Don’t simply delegate or dump it.

7 Go one step further This makes the difference between quite good service and excellent service.

Contact the client afterwards and ask if they are happy with the solution.

If they pause before saying ‘yes’ – they aren’t really happy. Go through the loop again.

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How loyal will your clients be?

Telemarketing companies who focus on securing new clients for accountancy businesses tell me that they have never been busier. And there do seem to be a number of such specialist firms – in addition to the more general telemarketing companies that simply work for accountants as and when engaged to do so.

Some telemarketers are more effective than others. But effective or otherwise they are all calling the same corporate clients – probably including some of yours.  They source targets from local trade lists, Companies House data, Commercial list brokers and anywhere else they can trace key information.

The telemarketers generally offer the people they call tax reviews, to reduce tax bills and to provide a more hands on service. The better ones will find out what the client isn’t currently getting from their accountant and then introduce someone who promises to provide such a service.

Now, to be fair, many accountants who use telemarketing companies complain that the target client was only interested in reducing the fees they pay for accountancy services. And, as such, the introduction secured by the telemarketer was a waste of time.  Leaving such situations aside, on other occasions it often isn’t hard for a newcomer to promise a client more than they are currently getting – more attention, more advice, more reasonable fees and so on.

The question then is: How loyal will your better clients be when they are approached? And it is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

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Where smaller firms of accountants are going wrong

Accountancy Age has published a profile piece on Peter Hargreaves (Chartered Accountant and founder of Hargreaves Lansdown).  In it he is quite scathing about certain elements of the profession. None more so than the smaller practitioner:

“They’re not doing a good enough job for clients, hence they can’t charge much for the work. A self-defeating spiral, where pressure on fees is rife from client and competitors.‘The problem is they can’t command the fees to do the job properly. The profession has failed singularly to create the right aura for the charging of fees. They’re different to lawyers, who tend to make good businessmen.”

“The problem is the mindset of accountants. They tend to be ‘mean’ with money, which makes them fear charging. ‘Because there are a few doing it for nearly nothing, the others feel they have to compete, but they’ll give you a bad service. A false economy.”

“Those who want accountants don’t know who’s good, and they try and pay very little.”

“Adding value is the key for practices, instead of just preparing accounts from a ‘bunch of invoices’, because ‘if that’s the service they’re offering they don’t service much for it – and if that’s what the client wants they don’t deserve a good accountant”.

“They should say to clients “we want to be in your offices every three months finding out what’s going on, where you make money, to help financially plan your business. If you make a big profit, should you do something before then, perhaps a marketing promotion and spend it this year while we’re profitable” etc. but of course lots of business don’t even know if they’ve made a profit until the accountants produce the accounts.”

Do you find that insulting or does any of what Peter says strike a chord? It’s pretty much the same sort of message as is offered (a little more gently perhaps) by organisations such as AVN, the 2020 group and Probiz. Please tell me what you think by way of comments on this blog.

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Why bigger isn’t always best

It’s worth sharing  stories I hear about  dissatisfied clients of accountants as there are always lessons that can learned.  Let me be clear this story refers to a friend of mine who has recently gone back to his old accountant.

Why did ‘Harold’ change accountants last year?  He told me:

Believe it or not it really was just a belief that we needed to have an accountant that lived nearby. Our old accountant was good and I guess we also thought the grass might be greener at a big firm because they say all these impressive sounding things like they were going to assign two partners to our account and have quarterly updates which never happened.

So what did happen?

Harold wrote to the big firm as follows:

I am writing to let you know that we wish to return to our old accountants.  We have not been satisfied with the service received by [Your Big Firm].  I appreciate you have always been responsive when we have had queries and you were helpful during our meeting last year.  However, we (and I in particular) need more support and hand-holding than I have received from you.  I’m sure you would like to have some specific examples:

  • We thought we were going to have quarterly meetings to discuss the direction of the businesses
  • We have never had a courtesy call or email from you in over a year, asking how things are or on specific matters
  • The receptionist didn’t know who we were and couldn’t find our contact details when I phoned
  • We missed the tax return date for one of my companies  and we now owe a penalty (our old accountants used to remind us and keep on top of everything)
  • When I called to discuss the VAT registration, you sent me an email even though I wanted to chat through it with someone

I know some of those things may seem trivial to you but they are important to us.  We would feel more comfortable going back to our previous accountants who dealt with us for over five years.  It’s a small firm and we get a more personal service from them.

I am sorry to have to send you this news in the first week of the new year.  I have asked our old accountant to get in touch with you to request the files back.

The reply Harold received was short and sweet:

Your points are noted and I will pass the information to your accountant when I hear from him.

Best wishes for the future.

Lessons?  Was Harold’s experience typical of a larger firm? Were his expectations unrealistic? Had he been spoiled by his old accountant or was it that old level of service that created unrealistic expectations. I know what I think. What about you?

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Do you just give clients Answers or do you give them Advice?

When you see a Consultant in Harley Street (or the equivalent in Hospitals up and down the country) they will often give you options.  For example: You could try this new drug or you could have this operation.  How do you decide?

My wife’s approach is to turn the conversation around and to ask the Consultant what would they do if they were the patient or if their child/mother was the patient?  In other words she asks for Advice.

The letters that  accountants write to clients often contain a lot of technical information (often far too much in fact).  And if the client has asked questions the letter will contain information intended to answer the questions.  It’s very common for such answers to be in the style of ‘on the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that.’

I used to encourage my staff to check that their letters contained Advice when this was appropriate.  I used to stress that clients don’t just want Answers, they want Advice. So if there were two (or more) possible options, I suggested that our letters should always advice which route to go, which option to take.  This was of course subject to knowing that certain clients would prefer us not to do that. In my experience however most clients wanted Advice and generally did as we advised.

Is being an accountant that different from being a Consultant on Harley Street (when it comes to giving advice on technical matters)?

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Use it or lose it – Your clients’ trust

Accountants are expected and trusted to be good business advisers. This puts them in a good position to advice clients during the current troubled financial times.

I addressed this point recently in a post entitled: Accountants need to show they really are business advisers as we move into recession.

I have now seen reports of another survey that only serves to emphasise this point.

It was carried out by the Forum of Private Business (FPB)  together with commercial credit agency Graydon UK, and questioned 400 small businesses on their individual experiences of seeking financial advice.

The results reveal that 70 per cent of those questioned choose to consult their accountants for this type of advice, compared to only 47 per cent who look to their bank managers as trusted advisers.

The FPB comments on the results stress the declining confidence in banks as sources of financial advice.  My take on this is that the 70% figure above is LOWER than I would have expected. It might be a reflection of the respondents – perhaps only 70% had an accountant.

I make no apologies for restating a point I have been making for some months now.

Your clients trust you as a source of business and financial advice.  Now is the time to prove that such confidence is not misplaced. If you do not help clients through the recession you will lose them – either because they will cease to be in business or because they will move to a pro-active commercial accountant who can help them more than you have tried to do.

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How far do you go?

This was another of the thoughts I had during the workshop that followed an E-business for accountants seminar that I attended. (I’ve already commented on the seminar here and here).

One of the workshop leaders was suggesting that accountants should be more prepared to ‘upskill’ their clients as regards their e-business strategy. I asked whether he meant:

  • To be better able to talk to clients knowledgeably about e-business related subjects and to be able to introduce specialists to help the client with their issues; or
  • To be able to provide billable advice as regards e-business related issues (as distinct from the conventional services that accountants provide).

The point being that accountants want to be provide value to their clients and to be paid for the provision of valuable advice. Some might alternatively say they want to be paid for the time they spend providing valuable advice.

I’m not sure that the speaker had considered the distinction before I explained it. The seminar had been promoted as “a chance to acquire new skills that enable you to advise your clients on their e-business strategy.”

In replying to my question however the speaker made clear that he was referring to the first of those options. That made sense to me – although it was a big step down from the alleged objective for the seminar.

The speaker’s worthy aim was refined as encouraging accountants to assist their clients with e-business related issues and introduce relevant reputable specialists. This makes more sense to me than trying to ensure that accountants are able to provide valuable advice on such matters themselves.

I tend to think that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is just as relevant in the fast evolving world of e-business as it is in the world of tax which I know so well. (And I recently explained the reasons why I gave up giving tax advice).

I’ve learned a fair amount about many aspects of e-business over the last couple of years – from web marketing to search engine optimisation to the differences between effective website design and website development. And so much more. I’ve put much of this knowledge to good effect in my Tax Advice Network but I know my limitations and take advice from experts – not amateurs.

Still, accountants are often revered for their all round business knowledge. Revered and respected. That puts them in a powerful position and it’s one of the reasons why plenty of those e-business experts want to work with accountants. They believe that you are well placed to make trusted introductions to your clients.

On the tax front it was for similar reasons that I chose accountants as the main target audience for my Tax Advice Network. I know that good accountants know what they don’t know. They are aware of the dangers of going beyond their levels of competence when advising clients on unusual or complex tax issues. And they want to involve trusted, vetted, recommended, commercial and often local tax experts. That’s what we’re all about of course.

Going back to that distinction I drew at the start of this posting. How far do you go?

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How to develop good listening skills

These are so important as ambitious professionals need to be good listeners. We have to listen to our clients, our colleagues, our staff, our partners, our suppliers, our prospects and our prospective clients.

So here are a number of tips that, if practiced, will ensure that you are seen to be a good listener:

  • Stop talking – you cannot listen if you are talking.
  • Put the client at ease – help the speaker to feel they are free to talk.
  • Show the client you want to listen – sound interested.
  • Remove distractions – don’t doodle, tap or shuffle papers. Can you reduce the surrounding noise?
  • Empathise with the client – try to put yourself in the client’s place so that you can see their point of view. First try to understand then try to be understood.
  • Be patient – allow plenty of time. Do not interrupt.
  • Control emotions and temper – an angry person gets the wrong meaning from words. Avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions.
  • Go easy on argument and criticism – this puts the client on the defensive. They may ‘clam up’ or get angry. Do not argue: even if you win, you lose. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”
  • Ask questions – this encourages the client and shows you are listening. It helps to develop points further.
    Concentrate on what the client is saying – follow the main ideas; sometimes we hear only the examples, stories and statistics. Don’t allow your reactions to distract you from the key concepts.

Nature gave us two ears but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that we should listen more than we talk. To become better listeners, we must be interested in what others have to say and less preoccupied with ourselves.

Can you think of any more tips to add as comments on this post?

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